LOS ANGELES -- Certain things are regarded as inevitable parts of life. Death. Taxes. Justin Bieber getting arrested for something stupid. We set our watches to these constants, and you can add another chain of events to this list.
The Los Angeles Dodgers will get off to a perplexingly sluggish start. Hands will be wrung. Don Mattingly's managerial acumen, along with the hotness of his "seat" will be questioned by fans and media alike. Outfielders Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp will be linked to roughly 1,652 trade rumors. It will be stated every hour on the hour that $200 million rosters aren't put together to perform this way.
And then without warning, the Dodgers will emerge right back into the thick of things. This was the case last season after a historic 42-8 run. And it was the case after Sunday's 6-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Just 21 days ago, the Dodgers were 9½ games behind the San Francisco Giants. In the blink of an eye, the Blue are now tied for the NL West lead. So much ground made up in less than a month is nothing short of remarkable, and the players won't even pretend otherwise.
But that's not the same thing as being surprised by the turnaround. Throughout these ups and downs, there has been consistent belief among the Dodgers. Belief in themselves. Belief in their collective talent. Belief in their identity, which is anchored with a starting rotation that provides a potential winning edge in every game.
"I think you have to have some appreciation for the length of the season and how long it is and how you keep marching down the road," Mattingly said. "But also, I think it’s a lot easier to be patient when you have [Clayton] Kershaw, [Zack] Greinke, [Hyun-Jin] Ryu, and Josh [Beckett], the way he's throwing the ball. Danny [Haren] keeps us in every game. I think that allows you to know that you've got a chance to go roll off games. Those guys keep you in a lot of games and if we can catch the ball for them and put up a few runs, we have a good chance to win. It's a lot easier to have patience when you have those kind of guys."
Kershaw made his manager's case by throwing seven innings of five-hit, 13-strikeout brilliance. In the clubhouse, he echoed Mattingly's faith not just in the pitching staff, but the entire lineup.
"We've been scoring in a lot of different ways and that's a the sign of a good team," Kershaw said. "We've got a lot of dynamic players with Dee [Gordon], who's been playing so well. And [Yasiel] Puig. And if you get good at-bats from [Kemp] and [Ethier] down in the five and six hole, we got a really deep lineup, so we showed that today.
"I think everybody in here is confident in the team's ability. When we were struggling early, I think everybody knew in the back of our minds that we could turn it around. Coming back and tying up the Giants in the month is not something we expected, just like we didn't expect to go 42-8 last year, but we have that ability. And I think it goes back to a veteran team and not getting too high and too low."
Said Kemp: "We were good even when we were struggling. Some of us struggled a little bit, and I think we're all getting on the same page and we're playing together as a team and making it happen."
Besides, as Kershaw and Mattingly reminded us, the outside world is prone to panic.
Take May 17, which marked an uncharacteristically brutal outing for Kershaw: seven earned runs in just 1⅔ innings. Throw in a previous lukewarm-by-Kershaw-standards performance against the Giants, plus the first DL stint of his career, and some concern was expressed about Kershaw slumping. Clearly, that wasn't the case, and Mattingly wasn't above mocking the chewed fingernails.
"It seems like a long time ago that he had that game in Arizona and everybody was ready to drop him off a mountain," Mattingly said.
By the same token, the team is taking its recent run in equal stride. In the minds of the players and coaches, nothing has been accomplished beyond the creation of valuable wiggle room.
"We're not going to get too excited at this point," Mattingly said. "We feel good about the way we're playing. I feel like we've hopefully hit a stride that we can keep this pace up and continue to win series. We know there's a long way to go. We're barely past half [way through the season]. But it does feel good to obviously have climbed a little bit of a mountain there where you're way back there, you're in danger of a bad week putting you in real trouble. So now at least you've got a way to survive a rough week or so."